Wow, I wasn’t expecting anything like this. Poverty is so systemic it’s mind-boggling. Seven million people live in Port au Prince and their entire city and society make me feel as if l am on a different planet.
I’ve lived in Madagascar, which is just as poor as Haiti. But in Madagascar my surroundings seemed more quaint and scenic even in its poor neighborhoods. To be fair, my impressions of Port au Prince are based on one day here, and only of a few miles of driving and walking in a couple of average neighborhoods.
Here, around every corner is a new site that blows my mind away. It’s off my chart of comprehension. In Madagascar, I’ve seen kids fight dogs for garbage in the streets before. But what’s new to me here is how universally poor every thing is in this huge bustling city.
In the Miami airport, someone asked me if Haiti had recovered from the earthquake yet. After seeing this town a little now, it’s obvious this question misses point. There never was anything to recover from. Making noticeable movements toward something that resembles a normal less developed country will take 100 years. And I haven’t even seen any quake damage yet.
It’s sweat dripping hot, the sun is intense, there is no breeze and the streets are dusty as all the side streets are dirt with trucks and motorcycles leaving dusty trails. Many of the roads have huge ruts and bumps and sewage runs in the ditches lining the roads. They get backed-up with trash. And goats and pigs scavenge while a cow here or there is in a patch of field in town. All around people can be spotted in their side space outside their shack bathing naked, and in the larger barren urban scrub-brush, lots of people are squatting to go to the bathroom.
The streets are lined with shops, no matter if its residential or a major route or not, selling what we would call junk, people carry their goods on displays on their heads, or hanging from a display board. Every step I’m navigating mud puddles. It’s busy on the streets this Sunday, but who would be inside when you don’t have a breeze in your home. Industrial facilities are blended right among the homes with their metal gates and concrete walls tipped with broken glass for security. All the concrete homes have their rebar sticking up from their roofs, so some day maybe a second floor could be built, giving every thing an unfinished look. But it’s realistically finished since everything in this town is like that.
Some tent villages have that new post earthquake look. But it’s clear that other shack-tarp-tents have been here much longer. It’s just part of life to have the family with the 50 square foot shack to live right among the other richer families who still can’t afford electricity or plumbing in their 300 square foot concrete home. And right between the massive UN tent village and everything else is a beautiful tree shaded horse stables facility where two women were learning to make their beautiful horses canter and spin. Not to diss this place, as they also give lessons to the kids at the orphanage I’m staying with. It’s only the contrast I’m pointing out. Including the fact that they were the only white people I had seen all day.
I got to the stables by taking a tap-tap on an easy to communicate route. I brought the security man from the Orphanage with me just in case it turned-out not to be so easy. A tap-tap is basically a pickup truck with benches in back. On the main paved roads they are as common as taxis in Time Square.
The kids at this orphanage, Notre Maison, were all found on the streets abandoned and most have various severe mental and physical disabilities. What makes things worse here is that when a child is severely neglected, their brains actually develop with other defects that prevent them from ever being able to socialize normally. Either they lack the ability to make a connection or they are overly affectionate with any human that walks through the door. I went into a back area by myself to give each kid a hug. They moaned and mumbled sound from their wheelchairs, waiving their arms for me. Several kids that could walk swarmed toward me tying to climb onto me. One girl, about four years old grabbed my hips and threw her legs up around me while a seven year old had climbed on a table and was trying to jump onto my shoulders. There were no smiles, no laughter, no life in their eyes, just a rush of kids attaching onto me like a, this will sound crass, but a growing swarm of zombies in the TV show Walking Dead. I felt a little bad when it was time for me to leave and I had to out pace them to the gate, unlock it and get it closed before they could slip out with me.
This is just one place here making only a drop in the bucket to a massively incapable social system. You can’t look at this like a United States government agency that just need a shake-up in leadership. The social systems are running exactly as I would expect in this type of society. Good efficient government can’t be imposed on people. It comes from the people’s expectations and their ability participate in government. Right now, at least in the capital city, half the country’s population is just struggling to exist. It’s going to be a 100 year haul in baby steps.
Now, on a lighter note, I went to a soccer game across the street from the orphanage. Like everything it was on rocky dirt that slopped way up in one corner. It was only the size of half a basketball court, and the nets were three feet wide by two feet tall. Four on a team with one being the goal-keeper. He wasn’t allowed to use his hands to block the ball. About 50 young kids watched from the dirt mounds between the field and the concrete walls of the buildings surrounding the field. I had to pay twelve and a half U.S. cents to get in to watch.
Tomorrow I look forward to discovering a little more. Gertrude, the director and founder of the orphanage says the downtown area is like nothing else.